If you're looking for a pack to take up multi-pitch climbs, you have more options now than ever before. We researched over 50 different models before purchasing 10 to subject to side-by-side testing. From the glacier-polished granite of El Capitan to the coarse volcanic phonolite of Devil's Tower, we climbed steep crimps, featureless slabs, strenuous chimneys, and even hauled these packs to in our efforts to select the best. During all these pitches we discovered which models were the most durable and comfortable, and which had the most practical climbing features. In the end, we have an overall favorite, a suggestion for climbers on a budget, and an option to go the distance.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Climbing Pack Updates
With a brand spanking new selection, our team of experts pushed each pack's limits while rock climbing all over the globe. Our Editors' Choice, the Patagonia Linked Pack, has seen some changes this year, while the updated REI Co-op Flash 18 is still our favorite option for those on a budget. We've also included the Black Diamond Creek 20, which steals the show for being the most durable.
Best Overall Model
Patagonia Linked Pack 18L
No emergency whistle
Patagonia updated the Linked Pack, now offering an extra 2 liters of storage, a burlier fabric, and dual external daisy chains. Check out the individual review to get the whole scoop!
While the Patagonia Linked Pack only takes the first place score in one of our five evaluation criteria, it boasts the best overall score and was our lead tester's favorite. It strikes the best balance between weight and durability of any climbing backpack in our test. Our team also found it to be very functional, comfortable, and versatile. It is one of only two packs with both easily usable haul loops and a sleek design with enough sufficient carrying potential (the other is the Black Diamond Creek 20). The fabric is durable and we were constantly surprised at how much gear we crammed into this bag. Even its weaknesses were only slight; one of our only grievances is that the sternum strap doesn't double as an emergency whistle. For the second time in a row, we're happy to give this model our Editors' Choice Award.
Read review: Patagonia Linked Pack 18L
Best for Budget-Minded
REI Co-op Flash 18
The REI Co-op Flash 18 is one of two packs in this test not specifically designed for rock climbing. The other is the Patagonia Lightweight Black Hole Cinch 20L. This could be one reason why it's so much less expensive (for some reason, gear marketed for life-threatening pursuits is always pricier). We chose to keep the Flash to this review because of how often we see it out on the rock. There's no surprise that it's popular with climbers: it's light and cheap. For a lot of applications, it's also equally functional compared to the higher-priced options. This was our number one choice to throw into a bigger overnight pack for use in a lightweight summit push. The Flash's greatest weakness is durability. Its 140-denier nylon will quickly be destroyed if it comes into much contact with rough rock. For 40 bucks, however, it won't cost you too much to replace a bag destroyed by abrasion when climbing and hauling.
Ice axe loop
Limited climbing utility
Read review: REI Co-Op Flash 18
Top Pick for Durability
Black Diamond Creek 20
This Black Diamond Creek 20 has some of the best features of a haul bag (durability, stand-up construction) and the comfort (both on the hike in and on route) of a small climbing pack. It's incredibly durable and has a simple design and construction that make it easy to pack and easy to dig into. Professional climbing guides, first ascensionists, desert climbers rolling with a lot of water, climbers in cold environments who need extra layers…really anyone who needs a bit more than 16L of volume but doesn't want to sacrifice climbability should check out this bag. The price of this durable and utilitarian design is weight; it's one of the heaviest models in our review. However, if you're hard on gear, or just want to buy one pack and not think about it again for 5 - 10 years, this is the small climbing pack for you.
Few hydration features
Read review: Black Diamond Creek 20
Analysis and Test Results
What Is a Rock Climbing Daypack?
One of the joys of rock climbing is getting high off the ground. The exhilarating exposure and incredible views give you a chance to see the world from a whole different perspective, both figuratively and literally. One of the challenges, though, is trying to remain comfortable and safe while spending the day a few hundred feet off the ground. A rock climbing backpack helps overcome this problem by giving you a way to carry the food, water, and gear necessary to keep you happy and alive. Although any old backpack is capable of holding these supplies, we set out to discover what is the best bag for multi-pitch rock climbing. These packs are more robust than a hiking day bag, more substantial than a hydration pack, and smaller and more ergonomic than a mountaineering or alpine climbing backpack. They also have some features specific to rock climbing, like reinforced haul loops and rope straps.
The climbing backpacks we tested ranged from 16 to 24 liters. We feel this is the ideal range for a climbing pack: any smaller and you might as well clip the contents to your harness, more significant and they're too unwieldy to climb with. Our testers find this size range useful for anything from a leisurely single pitch photo shoot to a grade VI speed ascent. With good packing, you can expect to fit 2 liters of water, a pair of approach shoes, some snacks, and a layer or two in any one of these packs. Some come with additional external attachment points, like daisy chains or compression straps for securing big cams, a rope, or an ice axe.
Most rock climbers should already know how important weight can be. On a difficult redpoint, burning a pound or two can be the difference between flailing and success. The same is true in the alpine realm where extra weight can sap your strength before you even get to the route. As far as rock climbing daypacks go, weight may not be quite as critical. The majority of the climbers we know wear packs for long moderate routes where weight is less important. Some have the second carry a pack for the team so the leader can move freely. And when things do get truly desperate, you're usually better off hauling a pack instead of wearing it. Many packs in this test have some features designed specifically for this, and several are reinforced to take the extra abuse hauling dishes out.
The packs we tested range in weight from 10 REI Co-op Flash 18 to 43 ounces Metolius Mescalito. It is possible to produce a 16L pack even lighter, but not without significant sacrifices in durability, function, or cost. Although there are limited ways to trim the weight from the Mountain Hardwear Hueco 20 and Patagonia Lightweight Black Hole Cinch 20L without scissors, every other pack in the review can be slimmed by about 2 oz or more if you remove hip belts, sternum straps, and supplemental padding. Weight itself represents 10% of our overall scores, and we think that's what it should be. Not critical but worth some consideration.
Small climbing daypacks are expected to be lightweight and comfortable while still withstanding some of this abuse. Overall we were impressed with how well they held up. Durability is primarily determined by two factors: materials and construction. We define materials as the fabrics, zippers, and buckles used to make them. Construction is the design of the pack itself, i.e., the shape and layout of features, the location of the seams, types of closures used, redundancy of haul loops, etc.
Three of the packs in our test (the Black Hole, Mescalito, and Black Diamond Creek 20) have notably different materials to increase durability. The Creek is made of a high denier polyester with a thick urethane coating. The Black Hole is made of a lighter weight nylon with a thick urethane coating. The Mescalito is made of a lighter weight version of the Durathane material on their haulbags, which are some of the burliest out there.
Materials we tested ranged from the flimsy 140-denier nylon on the body of the Flash to 1260d on the base of the Black Diamond Bullet to the Durathane of the Mescalito, which brings us to the second factor: construction. Higher denier fabrics weigh more. In order to shave ounces, designers only use heavier materials on the parts of gear most subject to abuse.
On the packs in our test, we found heavier fabrics on the bottom. The Bullet and Petzl Bug packs feature higher denier bases and up the sides to a small degree. Although these measures are suitable for preventing the bottom of your pack from falling out, we believe the more likely places to wear on a climbing backpack are the front and sides. These problem areas are what usually scrape against the rock during actual climbing and hauling. While Mountain Hardwear chose to reinforce the base with a sacrificial layer of the same 400d fabric used on the body, the Hueco has vinyl-coated fabric for its front, a feature our testers appreciated. There is little to no reinforcement to the front or sides of other packs.
Ultimately, when considering both materials and construction characteristics within our overall durability score, we found the Mescalito to be the burliest and the Flash to be the most fragile.
All the evaluation criteria—weight, durability, comfort, etc.—were selected because they can affect a pack's overall usefulness for rock climbing. However, within the metric 'climbing utility' we focused on qualities outside the scope of those other categories. In this vein, most of these packs share some of the same features. They're almost all hydration system compatible with sleeves or pockets along the back to tuck a bladder, a hole through the top to pass a hose through, and tabs on the shoulder straps to secure a bite valve.
The Mescalito and Creek both lack these niceties. Critical clips positioned inside accessory pockets are also almost entirely universal, here only the Mescalito mysteriously lacks one in its zippered lid pocket. Regardless of the closure method, the packs we tested are all designed to prevent gear from spilling out when opened on route. Eight of them are reliable top-loaders. Although the Petzl Bug and BD Bullet are panel-loaders, the Bug's zippers don't extend down very low and the Bullet has triangular flaps to keep gear inside even when it's long zippers are fully opened.
The placement of pockets was another matter. Pocket placement and shape came in many forms, and this made a difference. The "pocket bag" is the place where your stuff goes when you stick it in the pocket. External pockets that had pocket bags on the inside of the pack were the hardest to use, especially if they were low on the pack. Our testers had a difficult time getting anything out of the external zipper pockets on the Hueco, Bug, and Arc'teryx Cierzo 18. Conversely, the pocket bag on the big external zipper pocket of the Patagonia Black Hole protrudes from the pack like a blister and was easy to use.
You don't have to be inside the depths of a squeeze chimney for a backpack to get in the way while rock climbing. Laybacks, stem boxes, offwidths, and shoulder scums can all require you to place your back or sides of the stone. Snagging your pack on a branch during the approach or descent is also frustrating and, in the wrong terrain, potentially dangerous. A compact, streamlined pack has the potential to turn an exasperating struggle into a manageable inconvenience.
The Bullet has no exterior catch points besides a single carry handle on top. It's pretty much guaranteed to slide past all obstacles. The Bug and Flash are also streamlined but include haul loops and a few attachment points that could potentially get hung up. Most grabby were the Trango Ration and Arc'teryx Cierzo 18, which have some cords, loops and other gizmos as potential snag points.
The Hueco 20 also has two loops on top, but they're too short to reach each other and are designed more for clipping into an anchor than for hauling. The Mescalito has two top attachment points, but they require an additional sling or some cord to rig. All of the other packs have the single standard loop positioned between the shoulder straps. Our testers found these to be sufficient for all but the most problematic hauling. For the paranoid, it's possible to use these single haul loops combined with a sling through a shoulder strap to improvise redundancy, but this requires extra gear and is less convenient.
As noted under DURABILITY, hauling is hard on packs. The Mescalito, Creek, Bullet all have flaps built into the back of the pack to tuck shoulder straps into when hauling. The shoulder straps on the Bug can imperfectly be crammed into the topo pocket on the back of the pack. The Ration comes with a cover that the whole thing slides into before hauling. This provided the only option to protect an entire pack from abrasion.
If you're going to be hiking around a daypack full of water, layers, and snacks along with big cams, a helmet, and rope strapped to the outside, the total weight can get surprisingly heavy, and support becomes a concern. All the packs come with similar shoulder straps and padding. We have gripes with the Hueco and Black Hole because they're the only bags without hip belts. We found this irksome because their 20-liter capacity and rope strap (on the Hueco) easily allows you to pack loads heavy enough to require extra support. Why not include a removable hip belt like the Flash, Linked, or Cierzo 18? We'd even settle for the tuckable hip belt on the Petzl Bug, but no hip belt is a deal breaker for many climbers we spoke with.
This category is tricky to judge because there are near infinite ways to use a small backpack. The most popular secondary application we envision for these packs is everyday urban activities like going to class, shopping for groceries, or toting around a laptop. For this type of use, all the bags we tested are more than capable.
There are no restrictions on filling the main compartments with books, groceries, or anything else. The subjective quality affecting this application though is style. We hesitate to tell anyone what to wear, but feel it's worth mentioning the testers and climbers we talked to preferred the Bullet and Black Hole's sleek exteriors for social occasions. The Creek and Cierzo can come off as a bit too technical for around town errands.
We also suspect a lot of rock climbers will want to stuff their small climbing daypack inside a larger backpack for carrying gear to the cliff or on an overnight excursion. Therefore, we factored in the packable bulk of these packs when they're empty. The Mescalito is bulky enough that it's only worth packing into a much much larger pack and even then just if you need a mini haul bag in the backcountry.
The Creek is only slightly smaller. At the other end of the spectrum the Flash 18 and Trango Ration vie for the smallest. The Flash is streamlined enough to function as a stuff sack within a larger pack. We think this could be a factor for climbing trips where you hike into a base camp with overnight loads and climb several multi-pitch routes nearby over successive days as you might do in Wyoming's Wind River Range or Washington's North Cascades.
When multi-pitching it's common to 'carry-over' routes—approach from one way and descend another. In these situations, it's usually most comfortable to carry as much gear as possible in/on your daypack for the hiking, instead of letting it jangle around on your harness or an over-the-shoulder sling. For this reason, we like packs with external attachment options. All the models except the BD Bullet have a few attachment points and a way to secure a rope. The Bullet may be streamlined, but it won't help you transport a carry-over load.
Beyond these qualities, evaluating versatility become more pack specific. Half of the packs in the test had enough exterior attachment points that we'd consider using them for moderate alpine missions. The Arc'teryx Cierzo 18 is built specifically for this purpose. Both of the Patagonia packs had a combination of light weight and sufficient attachment points for a pair of ice tools and (maybe) crampons.
The Mescalito is burly enough that a pair of testers used it as a sub-bag (with snacks, water, and layers for each day) on a big wall ascent of the eponymous El Cap route. The BD Bullet's sleek exterior does limit its uses, but it could be desired by high-speed adventurers who prefer zero possibility of snagging (mountain bikers, resort skiers).
It is hard to imagine another sport with as much variety of movement as rock climbing. From basic maneuvers like laybacks, drop knees, and stems to the esoteric inventions of inverted offwidth specialists, different routes can dictate our bodies contort in all manner of ways. A good climbing backpack should be able to accommodate these movements (or at least be haulable when something gymnastic is required).
One difference between climbing daypacks and regular hiking daypacks is where they rest on your back; climbing specific bags should be designed to stay up high on the back to prevent them from tangling with gear on a harness. We also want our pack to allow for extra lower back mobility. At the same time, a climbing pack shouldn't be positioned too high, where it could interfere when looking up with a helmet on. All of the contenders in our test are slightly different back lengths and shapes. We strongly recommend (especially for smaller climbers) trying them on before buying if possible.
Nevertheless, a tapered profile didn't guarantee a good comfort score. Multi-pitch routes often have a long approach, and climbing daypacks have to be able to tote gear on that approach with a (reasonable) level of comfort. The Hueco and Black Hole Cinch 20 lost points because they lack hip belts and could become painful after bouncing down a long walk-off with a heavy load.
The generous padding on the shoulder straps and hip-belt of the Mescalito stand in contrast to the spartan padding on the Cierzo, which becomes uncomfortable when overloaded. Many of our testers also reported specific complaints about the Bullet. This pack has widely spaced and especially curved shoulder straps that were prone to sliding off the shoulders of even our broadest-shouldered testers. Keeping the sternum strap clipped solved this problem, but wasn't a solution many of our testers liked.
If you're into climbing multi-pitches, the chances are good that you've realized the utility of a small climbing pack to carry your essentials for the day. A combination of small and lightweight, while still being comfortable and durable, is what we're seeking for our long vertical pursuits. That said, these bags can be handy in everyday urban life, too. We hope our months of hauling these bags up rock faces has produced a review that will prove helpful in your search for a new climbing daypack. As a further resource, be sure to consult our Buying Advice article for advice on how to find the right bag that matches your back (and climbing lifestyle!).
— Ian McEleney
Still not sure? Take a look at our buying advice article for more info.